Day: May 11, 2017

As Farmers Worry, US Agriculture Chief to Promote Trade

As farmers fret over President Donald Trump’s criticism of international trade agreements, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue is trying to reassure them by creating a top post to oversee trade and foreign agricultural affairs.

The new undersecretary position is a sign of Perdue’s efforts to promote the U.S. agricultural industry as Trump has sought to undo trade pacts that benefit it. Perdue made the announcement Thursday in Cincinnati while standing near barges that carry grain on the Ohio River.

“This nation has a great story to tell and we’ve got producers here that produce more than we can consume,” the former Georgia governor said. He said the new position “fits right in line with my goal to be American agriculture’s unapologetic advocate and chief salesman around the world.”

On his second day in office last month, Perdue helped persuade Trump not to withdraw from the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada, arguing that doing so would hurt U.S. farmers. Trump has said he will work to renegotiate the pact instead.

The 2014 farm bill had directed USDA to make a plan for the new position, but the Obama administration never created the post. Perdue said the new undersecretary will work with incoming U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to “ensure that American producers are well equipped to sell their products and feed the world.”

The Senate confirmed Lighthizer on Thursday. Though he had broad support from both parties, Republican senators John McCain and Ben Sasse said they wouldn’t vote for him because they doubted he would champion agriculture and negotiate trade deals to the benefit of American consumers and the economy.

The departmental reorganization announced by Perdue would also combine farm production and conservation agencies under one undersecretary and move rural development programs to report directly to the secretary. Perdue said that will put more focus on those programs and USDA efforts to revitalize small towns.

While the creation of the trade secretary won widespread praise in farm country, at least one Democrat is criticizing the rural development move. Democratic senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio called it a “downgrade” because there will no longer be an undersecretary for that area.

Brown says his state depends on the program for help with combating opioid abuse, building hospitals and securing loans for businesses.

“Ohio’s rural communities are too often overlooked by Washington as it is, and downgrading USDA Rural Development sends a message that rural Ohio is not a priority for this administration,” Brown said.


Commerce’s Ross: China’s Plans Threaten US Semiconductor Dominance

U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross sees the U.S. semiconductor industry as still dominant globally but said he is worried that it will be threatened by China’s planned investment binge to build up its own chipmaking industry.

Ross told Reuters in an interview this week that his agency is considering a national security review of semiconductors under a 1962 trade law because of their “huge defense implications” — including their use in military hardware and proliferation in devices throughout the economy. He has launched similar Section 232 reviews of the U.S. steel and aluminum sectors, where a flood of imports especially from China has depressed prices, threatening the industries’ long-term health.

The probes could lead to broad import restrictions on the metals, and the Trump administration could potentially take similar actions based on the findings of a semiconductor investigation.

“Semiconductors are one of our shining industries, but they have gone from substantial surplus to the beginnings of a deficit,” Ross told Reuters. “China has a $150 billion program to take that much further between now and 2025. That is scary.”

The 79-year-old billionaire investor was referring to China’s plans for massive state-directed investments in semiconductor manufacturing capacity under its Made in China 2025 program, which aims to replace mostly imported semiconductors with domestic products.

Ross’ predecessor at Commerce, Penny Pritzker, warned last November about looming market distortions if China builds too much semiconductor capacity.

Ross added that while he understands Beijing’s logic in developing its domestic chip industry, “that’s going to be a struggle” from a U.S. trade standpoint.

Industry view

U.S. semiconductor makers, meanwhile, have other ideas about how to secure their future. Their major trade group, the Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA), advocates open trade and increased access to international markets, which now buy 80 percent of U.S.-made semiconductors. U.S. chipmakers also depend on a complex global supply chain and have nearly half their production capacity located overseas.

“So while we fully support efforts to ensure trade in semiconductors is fair and market-based, we do not believe a Section 232 investigation is the right tool to be applied to our industry” SIA President John Neuffer told Reuters.

One area where there appear to be some differences is how to define the industry’s trade balance.

Commerce Department trade data showed that “semiconductors and related device manufacturing” had a trade deficit of $2.4 billion in 2016, with exports of $43.1 billion and imports of $45.6 billion.

But that category includes rapidly growing imports of non-semiconductor devices including solar cells and light-emitting diodes (LEDs), as well as some raw materials.

In a new submission late on Wednesday to Commerce for a study on trade deficits, SIA said that excluding the non-semiconductor products shows the sector had a $6.4 billion trade surplus last year, with exports of $41.3 billion and imports of $34.9 billion.

Neuffer said the industry was ready to work with the Trump administration to find ways to persuade China to allow its semiconductor industry to develop in a market-driven way and not discriminate against foreign firms.

He added the government could make the United States a more competitive environment for semiconductor output through tax reform that does not penalize overseas earnings, immigration reform that allows the industry to attract new talent, improvements to U.S. education and more spending on basic research.

“The Chinese are determined to build a semiconductor industry,” Neuffer said. “I think the strongest pillar of any strategy going forward has to be our government helping to create an environment where we can pedal faster and stay as far ahead as possible.”


Bulgaria Seeks Private Investors for Nuclear Project

Bulgaria is seeking private investors to build a nuclear power plant on the Danube River, which was canceled five years ago, Prime Minister Boiko Borisov said during a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday.

Sofia canceled the Belene project in 2012 after failing to find foreign investors and facing pressure from Brussels and Washington to limit its energy dependence on Russia.

Since then Bulgaria has opened a gas link with neighboring Romania and is working to connect its gas network with neighboring Greece, Turkey and Serbia to diversify its suppliers.

It hopes to privatize the nuclear plant project after it paid more than 600 million euros ($652 million) in compensation to Russia’s state nuclear giant Rosatom when it canceled the 10 billion euro project. Rosatom had agreed to provide the nuclear reactors.

Bulgarian authorities have already said that Belene could be built without state guarantees or obligatory long-term contracts for the government to purchase power from it.

“Prime Minister Boiko Borisov said the government is looking for a strategic private investor to develop the project,” the government’s press office said in a statement.

In December, the Bulgarian government said that Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC), China’s biggest lender by assets, was ready to finance the Belene nuclear power project. China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) has also expressed an interest in investing in the project.

During their phone call, Borisov and Putin also underlined their mutual interest in the construction of the natural gas hub on Bulgarian territory, the government’s press office said.

Plans for a hub at the Black Sea port of Varna, which would store and transport gas from Russia and the Caspian Sea to southeastern and central Europe, follow the cancellation of Russian gas giant Gazprom’s South Stream gas pipeline project, which would have shipped Russian gas under the Black Sea via Bulgaria to central Europe.


‘It Takes Up the Whole River!’ US Ports Welcome Giant Ship

The largest cargo ship ever to visit ports on the U.S. East Coast is so long the Statue of Liberty and Washington Monument could fit end-to-end along its deck and still leave room for Big Ben.


The COSCO Development arrived Thursday at the Port of Savannah after cruising past dozens of onlookers who cheered and took photos of the mammoth vessel from Savannah’s downtown riverfront. Its first East Coast voyage marks a new era for U.S. ports that, despite years spent anticipating the supersized ships, will struggle to accommodate them without major infrastructure improvements.


“It takes up the whole river!” Andrew Evans, who served as a ship’s officer in the 1960s, exclaimed to his wife as the ship slowly lumbered into view, the cargo containers stacked on its deck towering above trees on the shore.


“The largest ships I was on, you could fit 10 of them on that ship,” Evans said. “Maybe more.”


At 1,200 feet (366 meters) bow-to-stern, the COSCO Development is longer than the aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford. It can carry 13,000 cargo containers measuring 20 feet (6 meters) long apiece. That’s 30 percent more capacity than the last record-breaking ship that sailed into Savannah last summer.


The big ship, flagged out of Hong Kong and owned by China-based COSCO Shipping Lines, is also the largest to pass through the Panama Canal following a major expansion last year. Its arrival on the East Coast shows shippers aren’t waiting for the seaports scrambling to deepen their harbors so the larger ships can pass fully loaded at low tide.


The Port of Virginia, where the ship docked earlier this week, is one of only four East Coast ports with the desired 50 feet of depth at low tide. A $973 million deepening of Savannah’s shipping channel started in 2015 but won’t be finished for about five more years. The Port of Charleston, South Carolina, where the big ship will head next before returning to Hong Kong, plans to start its own dredging this fall.


Overall, 15 U.S. seaports on the East and Gulf coasts are seeking $4.6 billion after being authorized by Congress to make room for bigger ships. Only three of those have cleared the permit requirements needed to start digging, said Jim Walker, navigation policy director for the American Association of Port Authorities.


Meanwhile, the largest ships using the Panama Canal must carry lighter loads or wait for higher tides before calling on most U.S. ports on the East Coast.


“Maybe it’s a warning shot that these U.S. ports need to get these improvements finished,” Walker said. “If you’re having to light-load ships for this, it costs more.”


Manuel Benitez, the Panama Canal Authority’s deputy administrator, said the surge in ship traffic between the U.S. East Coast and Asia has exceeded expectations since the canal opened its expanded locks last June. The authority initially thought two or three larger ships would pass through each day, he said, but the daily average has been nearly six.


The COSCO Development had to make its 39-mile (63-kilometer) trip up the Savannah River at high tide Thursday morning to ensure it would fit. Its cargo deck was about 80-percent full, said Griff Lynch, executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority.


Lynch said dockworkers using six cranes planned to load and unload about 5,600 total cargo containers — big metal boxes used to ship goods from consumer electronics to frozen chickens — from the giant ship. That’s more than five times the cargo Savannah handles for a typical ship.


“It’s everything we’ve talked about for years,” Lynch said. “Now what you’re going to see is one after the other. This is going to become more of the norm.”


Brazil Says Its Zika Emergency Over

Brazil declared an end to its public health emergency for the Zika virus on Thursday, 18 months after a surge in cases drew headlines around the world.


The mosquito-borne virus wasn’t considered a major health threat until the 2015 outbreak revealed that Zika can lead to severe birth defects. One of those defects, microcephaly, causes babies to be born with skulls much smaller than expected.


Photos of babies with the defect spread panic around the Western Hemisphere and around the globe, as the virus was reported in dozens of countries. Many would-be travelers canceled their trips to Zika-infected places.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and others recommended that women who were pregnant shouldn’t travel to affected areas. The concern spread even more widely when health officials said it could also be transmitted through sexual contact with an infected person.


The health scare came just as Brazil, the epicenter of the outbreak, was preparing to host the 2016 Olympics, fueling concerns the Games could help spread the virus. One athlete, a Spanish wind surfer, said she got Zika while training in Brazil ahead of the Games.


In response to the outbreak, Brazil launched a mosquito-eradication campaign. The Health Ministry said those efforts have helped to dramatically reduce cases of Zika. From January through mid-April, the Health Ministry recorded 95 percent fewer cases than during the same period last year. The incidence of microcephaly has fallen as well.


The World Health Organization lifted its own international emergency in November, even while saying the virus remained a threat.


“The end of the emergency doesn’t mean the end of surveillance or assistance” to affected families, said Adeilson Cavalcante, the secretary for health surveillance at Brazil’s Health Ministry. “The Health Ministry and other organizations involved in this area will maintain a policy of fighting Zika, dengue and chikungunya.”


All three diseases are carried by the Aedes aegypti mosquito.


But the WHO has warned that Zika is “here to stay,” even when cases of it fall off, and that fighting the disease will be an ongoing battle.


Adriana Melo, the Brazilian doctor who first linked Zika to birth defects, said the lifting of the emergency was expected following the decline in cases.


“The important thing now is that we don’t forget the victims,” said Melo.


Heroin Epidemic Pushing Up Hepatitis C Infections in US

The heroin epidemic is driving up hepatitis C infections, with the biggest increase in people in their 20s, U.S. health officials said Thursday.

The number of new infections nearly tripled in five years, to about 2,400 in 2015. The virus is spread by sharing needles to inject drugs, and the increase coincided with a surge in heroin use.

But officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention think the reported infections are far fewer than the actual number. Most people don’t get sick for many years, so they aren’t tested and don’t know they are infected. The CDC estimates that the number of infections in 2015 was 34,000, or twice as many as the estimate for 2010.

The biggest jump in new infections is in people ages 20 to 29, the CDC said.

The hepatitis C virus spreads through the blood but does most of its damage by infecting the liver. It can lead to cirrhosis or liver cancer. In recent years, new hepatitis C drugs hit the market that can cure the infection in only a few months. But they are expensive: A course of treatment can cost tens of thousands of dollars.

The CDC also released national hepatitis C death figures: nearly 20,000 in 2015. The number hasn’t changed much recently, but that figure reflects a different group of infected people: baby boomers. The apparent leveling off may be due to a push to test all baby boomers for the virus and the treatment improvements, said the CDC’s Dr. Jonathan Mermin.

Of the 3.5 million Americans living with hepatitis, most were born between 1945 and 1965 and were infected decades ago, according to the CDC.

Before widespread screening of blood donations began in 1992, the virus was also spread through blood transfusions. New cases fell to under 900 nearly 15 years ago and stayed at that level until they rose sharply in 2011. That was around the time heroin use began increasing, as drug abusers caught up in the opioid crisis shifted from prescription painkillers to heroin.


Scientists Study Ancient Bacteria for Clues to Drug Resistance

Scientists are studying an ancient pathogen for clues as to how to fight a drug-resistant “superbug” in hospitals and other healthcare settings.  They’ve found that resistance to modern antibiotics dates back millions of years.

Enterococci are one of a group of six bacteria known as “superbugs,” microbes that infect patients and are resistant to antibiotics, making them potentially lethal.

Scientists studying the enterococcus family found they developed resistance to harsh conditions some 450 million years ago, well before dinosaurs came on the scene.

They say lesser animals deposited feces on land that contained bacteria that learned to survive harsh environmental conditions, such as drying by the sun.

Found in 30,000 year-old ice

The ancient “grandfather” of the bacterium, found frozen in 30,000-year-old ice, can be extracted and revived by modern scientists.  That’s how hardy enterococci are, according to Michael Gilmore, an ophthalmologist and microbiologist who heads Harvard University’s extensive program on antibiotic resistance.

“The enterococci are sort of like the cockroach of bacteria.  They’re very, very difficult to kill.  And so we think it’s the traits that developed in enterococcus in order to survive on the land that are exactly what make them so rugged and able to survive now in hospitals,” said Gilmore.

Gilmore oversaw a team of researchers that sequenced the genomes of 24 members of the enterococci family, finding 45 different properties that make them resistant to antibiotics and disinfectants in modern hospitals.

Their work is described in the journal Cell.

Traced to Cambrian Explosion

By peering back into the bacteria’s genetic material, investigators were able to trace enterococci’s lineage to the Cambrian Explosion 542 million years ago when animals first emerged from the sea.

It was bacteria nestled in the intestines of crawling animals a million years later that developed resistance to their environment.  

Gilmore said scientists are studying the pathogen’s genes to identify targets for the development of new weapons to fight the superbug.  

Gilmore added by characterizing the ancient DNA of enterococcus, “We can start looking at these different resistances and trying to identify for example new compounds that undermine those.  So, those become the target set for the next generation of disinfectants or antibiotics.”

Defenses are developed

Gilmore said enterococci live harmlessly in the digestive tracts of all animals along with thousands of other bacteria.  In a hospital setting, people are often treated with antibiotics to prevent infections, but the drugs also kill helpful microorganisms that keep enterococci under control.

Without that check, the superbug, which is not killed off, develops resistance to the antibiotics.  Overtime, Gilmore said it and other superbugs have developed defenses, including a tough outer layer, that make it difficult for antibiotics to penetrate.

Unhindered, the drug-resistant bacteria can find their way into the bloodstream or organs through wounds or the use of catheters.  Once infected, patients, whose bodies are now overrun by superbugs, do not respond to antibiotics and can die of septic shock and organ failure.

Gilmore said the aim of research that traces enterococcus to its prehistoric origins is to take out this superbug that threatens hospitalized patients.


Doctors Perform First Clitoral Restorative Surgeries in Kenya

Doctors from the U.S.-based organization Clitoraid are in Nairobi this month performing restorative surgery on women who have undergone female genital mutilation, known as FGM. It’s the first time this procedure has been done in Kenya. From Nairobi, VOA’s Jill Craig has more.


Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Painting, Watch Head to Auction

A watercolor by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis is being auctioned along with a Cartier watch she wore for years.

Christie’s said Thursday that the then-first lady, who painted as a hobby, created the artwork in 1963 as a gift for her brother-in law, Stanislaw Radziwill.

Radziwill gave her the watch.

Both commemorate a 50-mile hike that Radziwill undertook as part of President John F. Kennedy’s physical fitness initiative. The first lady briefly joined the hike.

The painting depicts Radziwill walking with a Kennedy family friend.

The items are being offered as a single lot at a June 21 sale in New York. The presale estimate is $60,000 to $120,000. 

The seller is anonymous. Part of the proceeds will benefit the National Endowment for the Arts.


Sinister Text Messages Reveal High-tech Front in Ukraine War

Television journalist Julia Kirienko was sheltering with Ukrainian soldiers and medics two miles (three kilometers) from the front when their cellphones began buzzing over the noise of the shelling. Everyone got the same text message at the same time.

“Ukrainian soldiers,” it warned, “they’ll find your bodies when the snow melts.”

Text messages like the one Kirienko received have been sent periodically to Ukrainian forces fighting pro-Russian separatists in the eastern part of the country. The threats and disinformation represent a new form of information warfare, the 21st-century equivalent of dropping leaflets on the battlefield.

“This is pinpoint propaganda,” said Nancy Snow, a professor of public diplomacy at the Kyoto University of Foreign Studies.

The Associated Press has found that the messages are almost certainly being sent through cell site simulators, surveillance tools long used by U.S. law enforcement to track suspects’ cellphones. Photos, video, leaked documents and other clues gathered by Ukrainian journalists suggest the equipment may have been supplied by the Kremlin.

The texts have been arriving since 2014, shortly after the fighting erupted. The AP documented nearly four dozen of them, including the one that Kirienko received on Jan. 31 in Avdiivka, a battle-scarred town outside the principal rebel-held city of Donetsk.

The messages typically say things such as “Leave and you will live” or “Nobody needs your kids to become orphans.” Many are disguised to look as if they are coming from fellow soldiers.

Fake towers

In 2015, Ukrainian soldiers defending the railroad town of Debaltseve were sent texts appearing to come from comrades claiming their unit’s commander had deserted. Another set of messages warned that Ukrainian forces were being decimated. “We should run away,” they said.

“They were mostly threatening and demoralizing, saying that our commanders had betrayed us and we were just cannon fodder,” said Roman Chashurin, who served as a tank gunner in Debaltseve.

Ukrainian military and intelligence services had no comment on the phenomenon, but government and telecommunications officials are well aware of what’s going on.

A 2014 investigation by a major Ukrainian cellphone company concluded that cell site simulators were to blame for the rogue messages, according to an information security specialist who worked on the inquiry. He spoke on the condition that neither he nor his former firm be identified, citing a nondisclosure agreement.

Col. Serhiy Demydiuk, the head of Ukraine’s national cyberpolice unit, said in an interview that the country’s intelligence services knew the devices were being used as well.

“Avdiivka showed that the Russian side was using fake towers,” he said. “They are using them constantly.”

Cell site simulators work by impersonating cellphone towers, allowing them to intercept or even fake data. Heath Hardman, a former U.S. Marines signals analyst who operated the devices in Iraq and Afghanistan, said they were routinely used by American military intelligence officers to hunt insurgents.

Sending mass text messages in wartime isn’t entirely new. The Islamic militant group Hamas sent threatening messages to random Israelis during the 2009 conflict over Gaza, for example, though it is not clear how that was done.

Effectiveness of texts

Cell site simulators significantly sharpen the ability of propagandists to tailor their messages to a specific place or situation, according to Snow, the academic.

“There’s just something about viewing a message on your phone that just makes people more susceptible or vulnerable to its impact,” she said.

The type of hardware involved remains a matter of speculation. But last year, the Ukrainian investigative website InformNapalm published a video and photographs appearing to show a LEER-3, a Russian truck-mounted electronic warfare system, in the Donetsk area. InformNapalm also disclosed what it described as leaked Russian military documents discussing the LEER-3’s deployment to the Luhansk area of eastern Ukraine.

A 2015 article in Russia’s Military Review magazine said the LEER-3 has a cell site simulator built into a drone that is capable of acting over a 6-kilometer-wide area and hijacking up to 2,000 cellphone connections at once. That makes it a “pretty plausible” source for the rogue texts in Ukraine, said Hardman, the former signals analyst.

Russia’s Defense Ministry did not return a request for comment. Moscow has long denied any direct role in the fighting in Ukraine, despite a wealth of evidence to the contrary.

The effectiveness of the propaganda texts is an open question. Soldiers say they typically shrug them off.

“I can’t say that it had any influence on us,” said Chashurin, the former tank gunner. “We were even joking that they must be so afraid of us the only thing they can do is to spam us with these texts.”

But Svetlana Andreychuk, a volunteer who has made frequent trips to the front line to distribute food and supplies, said the threats and mockery sometimes hit a nerve in a grinding conflict that has claimed more than 9,900 lives.

“Some people are psychologically influenced,” she said. “It’s coming regularly. People are so tired. You see people dying. And then you face this.”